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Merlot

photo of Merlot by Tim Ramey.Merlot is the second most widely-planted black wine grape in the world.1 Most major wine-producing country have Merlot vineyards, including Argentina, Australia, Austria, Chile, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, the United States, and of course France.

It is by far the most widely planted grape of the entire Bordeaux region and third, behind carignan and grenache as the most planted black variety in France. However, it has a starring role in only one region, historically, north of Bordeaux's Gironde River, where it is the basis of the wines of St. Emilion and Pomerol. Château Petrus, which has risen in consumer stature in the past four decades, is over 90% Merlot.2

South of the Gironde, however, merlot played a supporting role, usually about a third or less of typical Medoc blends with cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, until 1950, when plantings began to increase. Today, an average Medoc red blend has a base of two-thirds merlot, with the other grapes lending support. Most of the increased merlot planting has come at the loss of the cabernet franc, carmenere, malbec, and verdot varieties.

Merlot cluster.Because merlot ripens at least a week earlier than either cabernet variety, it is "vineyard insurance" where rains are a factor at harvest. The best quality merlot grows in rocky, arid ground, but is fairly adaptable and grows better than the cabernets in clay-based soils, even in damp, cool climates. Since merlot both buds and flowers early, growers' main worry is susceptibility to shatter or coulure, brought about by frost, rain, or early heat waves in the Spring. The berry of merlot is relatively thin-skinned and somewhat prone to rot.

Merlot is moderately vigorous in vine growth, but must sometimes be reined in from setting too large of a crop by judicious pruning, often followed weeks later by cluster thinning. Merlot leaf.Merlot on fertile soil may produce eight tons per acre, but best fruit quality is gained if the crop is kept at six tons per acre or less. Merlot's tendencies towards both shatter and over-cropping are paradoxical. Careful selection of both clone and site can avoid this problem, as shatter is more serious in colder climates.

Merlot was brought to California in the 1850s and 1870s, but made little impact and was practically unknown. Almaden put in some in San Benito County in the late 1950s, Inglenook had some old acreage (planting date uncertain), and Louis M. Martini planted merlot in 1962, near Healdsburg. Merlot was first bottled as a stand-alone varietal by Louis M. Martini on a blend of 1968 and 1970 vintages.

California Merlot was not a big seller until the end of the '80s. But in the 1990s, Merlot became to the American wine consumer what "burgundy" was in the '70s: the generic red wine flavor of fashion. Less than 2,000 acres existed in California in 1985, but over 50,000 acres were bearing by 2003.

Gunlach-Bundschu, an historical producer of Sonoma County merlot has produced this highly amusing, entertaining and educational short video on the popular history of the grape...

While its flavor profile is similar to Cabernet Sauvignon2, Merlot tends to be less distinctive and slightly more herbaceous overall in both aroma and taste. Ripeness seems critical; both under ripe and overripe grapes lean away from fruit and towards herbaceousness. Merlot has slightly lower natural acidity than Cabernet and generally less astringency, therefore usually a more lush mouth-feel.

The most frequent, but not exclusive, aromas and flavors typically found in Merlot include:

*Typical Merlot Smell and/or Flavor Descriptors
*Typicity depends upon individual tasting ability and experience and is also affected by terroir and seasonal conditions, as well as viticultural and enological techniques. This list therefore is merely suggestive and neither comprehensive nor exclusive.

Varietal Aromas/Flavors:

Processing Bouquets/Flavors:

FRUIT: currant, black cherry, plum

OAK (light): vanilla, coconut, sweet wood

FLORAL: violet, rose

OAK (heavy): oak, smoke, toast, tar

SPICE: caramel, clove, bay leaf, green peppercorn

BOTTLE AGE: truffle, mushroom, earth, coffee,leather, cedar, cigar box

HERBAL: bell pepper, green olive

.

Earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon to mature in bottle, Merlot is held in higher esteem by wine drinkers than by wine collectors.

Syrah is richer and darker, Pinot Noir lighter and more velvety, but Merlot has become the darling red wine. Is it because the consumer finds Merlot easy-to-drink or is it perhaps, because Merlot is easy-to-say? I'll have a glass of Merlot, please, while I think about it.

by Jim LaMar


NOTES
1. A bottle of the 1970 (excellent vintage) Ch. Petrus sold for under US$45 in 1975; a bottle of Ch. Petrus 2006 (similarly-rated vintage) lists for an average price of over US$2,200 in 2011.
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2. A recent study by an analytical chemist at the University of Bordeaux determined that the flavor distinction between Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot was possibly due to the grapes containing different amounts of one chemical: 4-hyroxy-2,5- dimethylfuran-3(2H)-1, or HDMF. Four times the level of HDMF in Merlot accounted for a more pronounced "caramel" flavor, according to the panel of expert taster subjects, who graded nine samples on the relative strength of 12 aroma categories. RETURN


RESOURCES
1. Jancis Robinson (ed), Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, (Oxford University Press: London) 2006

2. Benjamin Lewin, Wine Myths and Reality, (Vendage Press: Dover, DE) 2010

3. Charles Sullivan, A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (University of California Press: Berkeley) 1998

6. L. Peter Christensen, Nick K. Dokoozlian, M. Andrew Walker, James A Wolpert, et all. Wine Grape Varieties in California (University of California, Agricultural and Natural Resources Publications: Oakland) 2003

5. Jancis Robinson (ed), Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes, (Oxford University Press: New York) 1996

6. Steven Spurrier & Michel Dovaz, Academie du Vin, Complete Wine Course (G.P. Putnam & Sons, New York) 1983


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Page created October 5, 2001; last updated March 27, 2012
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